Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Essay: 50 Years of Field Guide Changes--a personal perspective

I haven't quite yet been birding 50 years. But my first field guide, the one I bought in 1973, was Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds, published in 1969 [a version of the 2nd edition of 1961]. Now that the calendar has reached 2019 I wanted to look back at some of the history. I don't want to review the field guides individually, so much as get a feel for the kinds of changes that have happened over the past 50 years. I want to review how birders responded as newer guides arrived. Or, at least, how I remember it.

First, let me describe my 1969 version of Peterson's work. It is sitting there on my shelf. I've thinned and weeded my bookshelf over the years. I now own far fewer bird books than I have in the past. So the fact it still remains says how much it is revered. The hard-cover is held on with various layers of duct tape, packing tape, and masking tape. Several pages in the introduction are loose. I had underlined field marks and voice for nearly each species. I added notations that were liberally crammed in the narrow margins. Name changes I dutifully updated through the 1980s. There may even be a spotted owl feather as a bookmark. The main point is this. This book was studied. This book was loved. It is the most prized book on my shelf. Why? It was my first.

50 years of bird field guides
One of these books is not like the others.
The layout of that guide was this: 60 plates and 24 pages of line illustrations, scattered throughout the 366 pages. All the finches, sparrows, buntings, and grosbeaks took only 4 plates. All the herons, ibises, storks, and cranes were on a single plate. Oh, and it was black-and-white (well, really, gray-scale), as were about half the plates. Illustrations were schematic, patternistic rather than showing feather details that mark the style of today's bird books. There were no maps; the ranges were written out. Each account listed similar species, nests, and eggs--in a nod to a form of the hobby no longer deemed appropriate. The voice descriptions used English sound-alike words. That's still how I hear birds today--with Peterson's descriptions. 687 species were covered for this western version, plus 60 species in Hawaii.

How far have we come? There were only two Empidonax illustrations. One illustration showed a "Western Flycatcher." Another was for all the rest, labeled "Trail's Flycatcher," that supposedly illustrated the field marks of Willow, Dusky, Hammond's, and Gray Flycatchers. The text for Hammond's Flycatcher says, "It is a standing joke among western ornithologists that no one seems to have an infallible way of telling Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers apart in the field (italics in original)."

There was one illustration for "Dowitcher." No illustrations for breeding, non-breeding, and juvenile. No illustrations for Long-billed versus Short-billed, or the several distinctive subspecies of the latter.

No wonder so many birds went by unidentified, or worse: misidentified. But this allowed me to do my own observations and research and put those field marks in the margins.

Actually, there was another field guide. It was first published in 1966: Birds of North America, the so called, "Golden Guide," after the publisher, Golden Press. Looking at the book now, it seems this work by Robbins, Brunn, Zim, and Singer, was really a landmark. It had color illustrations of every species in lifelike poses, male and female where they differed, summer and winter, and immatures. The illustrations also included just a hint of habitat. It had maps and text on the left hand page; on the right hand page were the bird illustrations--all together. And it showed all North American birds (north of Mexico), 700 species with more than 5 records since 1900. Oh, and sonograms, as well as word descriptions of the voice!

You would think, then, that birders of the time would have jumped at this new and more complete guide. And maybe they did. For some reason, though, the young birders of the 1970s that I knew disdained the Golden Guide in favor of the tradition of Peterson. At least, that's the way I remember it.

The Third Edition (1990) of Peterson's Western field guide had text and facing plates. Many of the illustrations were still from the 1961 edition, but at least they were shown larger. Maps were still at the end of the book. But it didn't matter. A new field guide had claimed the first spot in popularity. The Peterson field guides, once the bird field guide, became an also-ran.

The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America arrived in 1983. It updated regularly as names and checklist order changed and new species were added. This book always kept up with any new North American records, thus always had more species than any other. I've bought a new edition about every other printed edition to the now 7th Edition (2017) . The illustrations were especially uneven at first, the result of many different artists and styles. Later editions (starting with the 5th) benefited from the "feather detail" artistry and editing of Jonathan Alderfer (see American Woodcock illustration and compare with Sibley's). Paul Lehman's work on the maps in this guide have always been top-notch.

Bird field guides proliferated in the 1980s, continuing to today. But none could touch the "NatGeo" guide. That is, until the year 2000 when the Sibley Guide to Birds was published.

Sibley's illustrations, all done by him in the same style, are unifying. Even Peterson's artwork seems uneven by comparison. Sibley is excellent at getting the posture and the proportions correct. The Second Edition (2014) provides much more textual ID than the first. It's maps now match the quality, accuracy, and information content of those in the National Geographic guide. Sibley's Introduction is superior.

From the year 2000 until today, the "best" field guide is whichever of the National Geographic or Sibley guides is the most recent edition. What active birder wouldn't own them both?

But you know what? My Second Edition Sibley and my Seventh Edition National Geographic guides are pristine. Unmarked. They never leave my library--they come off the shelf to check a detail, then go right back. They are excellent field guides, far superior to my worn out, black-and-white, 1969 Peterson guide. They are my go-to references whenever I have an identification question. But unlike my Peterson's guide,... they are unloved.

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